Once Upon a Time in China IV

Reviewed by YTSL

At some point during one’s acquaintance with Hong Kong cinema, the observation cannot help but be made that those associated with it appear to have a distinct fondness for the number 3.  After all, it’s not just “The Heroic Trio” (and its sequel, “Executioners”) which features a starry threesome but also such disparate movies as “The Soong Sisters”, “Peking Opera Blues”, “A Better Tomorrow”, “Once a Thief”, “The Private Eyes” and “Wu Yen”.  Then there are all those three-part series out there like the “A Chinese Ghost Story”, “Swordsman” and “Infernal Affairs” sagas.  And funnily enough, I’d also be willing to wager that there are quite a few fans out there who have been moved to conclude that many, if not all, of the series which stretched beyond Part 3 probably would have been better served if they have had come to a close at the end of their third installment.

With regards to the “Once Upon a Time in China” series: It certainly doesn’t help that its fourth installment has a different director and main star along with lead actress from the previous three OUATICs.  And although Tsui Hark did at least remain on board to co-script (along with Elsa Tang) and - produce (with Ng See Yuen) ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA IV, gone is so much of what made the first three “Once Upon a Time in China”s so much more than the out-and-out wire-work action spectacle that the main individuals behind this 1993 Golden Harvest cum Film Workshop production appeared content for it to be.
To be sure though, ONCE UPON A TIME IN IV is once again not without a multi-stranded plot that ensures that Wong Fei Hung (essayed in this movie by Chiu Man Cheuk) will have to battle against more than one formidable enemy (two of whom are played by Chin Kar Lok and Billy Chow).  Some semblance of continuity is provided too by this particular installment purporting to begin immediately after the events of “Once Upon a Time in China III”: with a senior Ching court official meeting with Wong Sifu to successfully persuade him to accept the gold medal he refused at the end of the earlier film, as well as agree to take part in another ultra-competitive Lion King competition, albeit one with the twist of being an international contest organized by the eight foreign powers (including Britain, Japan and the U.S.A., but with the Germans marked out here as being the most nefarious of the enemies) which China feels most obliged to not lose face to.
As Lisa Morton noted in “The Cinema of Tsui Hark”, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA IV also has a plot which “borrows heavily from the first three entries in the series” (2001:195).  More specifically, this Yuen Bun-helmed as well as action-directed offering takes “the element of the sympathetic white priest from “Once Upon a Time in China [I]”, the dangerous anti-foreign-intervention cult from II, and the Lion King Competition from III” (Lisa Morton, 2001:196).  Present in the picture too are the likes of the mischievous Leung Fu (portrayed once more by Max Mok), enemy-turned-student Club Foot (essayed for a third time by Xiong Xin Xin) and Wong Kei Yin (Film Workshop favorite, Lau Shun, reprises the role of the elder Master Wong).  Additionally, while Rosamund Kwan’s Sap Saam Ee (trans., 13th Aunt; AKA Auntie Yee) is nowhere to be seen, Wong Fei Hung has similar support -- along with distractions -- in the form of Sap Seh Ee (trans., 14th Aunt; AKA Auntie May), Sap Saam Ee’s equally Westernized sister (played by Jean Wong).
Small wonder then that so much of ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA IV comes across as recycled rather than original (...though, it has to be admitted, moments of inventiveness are apparent, like in the case of the fight on blocks of wood which were liable to fall like dominoes).  At the same time, where I feel that the film most suffers -- and loses out in comparison to the earlier OUATICs (and, especially, the first two) -- is with regards to its reduced ideological scale.  As an example, while Wong Fei Hung continues to ostensibly act as a Chinese patriot plus function as the archetype of the physically able Chinese man, his primary motivation for those of his actions which propel the latter part of this movie appears to be the seeking of vengeance for the death of a good man who just happened to have been a Chinese court official (rather than something larger as well as more abstract in nature).
Furthermore, even while ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA IV has its moments of melodrama together with comedy, it feels devoid as well of genuine emotion plus emotional heft.  To my mind, some of this emotional disconnect is a function of it feeling like this fourth OUATIC really was made just to capitalize on the commercial success of the earlier OUATICs.  At a more observable level, it also may stem from the serial good guys somehow not having been particularly affected by being subject to torture while being held prisoner by the Germans or even shot by them.  Then there’s the Jet Li factor.  Suffice to state here that the actor’s absence from this work was felt, and most regretted, by this (re)viewer.

My rating for the film: 5.5